Sunday, July 24, 2011

I want to be, under the sea (or at least near it)

I often think that if we lived in Kending, I would have a much harder time leaving Taiwan. Kending is the southern most point of the island, and being a combination of beach, mountain, and countryside, it is a beautiful area and offers a lot.

In fact, it's hard to believe we were in Taiwan for almost 7 months before our first trip to Kending. But it only took one weekend down there to get us hooked. We decided to learn scuba diving, and during that first weekend of training as we rode around in the bed of our instructor's truck, we fell in love with the clean fresh breeze, the beautiful scenery, and the calm vibe of the ocean side.

At first we only spent one weekend a month there. We didn't want to lose focus on our Chinese studies, and we wanted to save money for scuba gear. But as time went on, we found Kending to be an irresistible weekend getaway. After we bought a car, getting down there became almost too easy, and I spent my week waiting to escape the city smog on Friday night.

Spending so much time in Kending pretty much ruined any chance of having a social life in Kaohisung, but we were happy with our scuba friends and the way we were spending our weekends. Jonathan and I could not understand why more people did not get down there on the weekends. Why they preferred to drink beer in a pollution ridden city rather than enjoy the beautiful nature less than two hours away. But in the end, while we spent a lot of time trying to convince our Kaohsiung friends to join us, we often left the city by ourselves.

After our scuba instructor left Taiwan about year ago, we took over the house he rented there with some other diving friends. When that happened, spending the weekend in the city became a rare occurrence. The people we shared the house with weren't really there that often, and we could bring our friends for the weekend, or just get away ourselves. We spent most of the time diving, and Jonathan will have completed about 200 dives since we began in March 2009. I have some catching up to do though, no diving with baby!

Yesterday I said goodbye to that house, and to Kending. To the friends we have there, the beautiful ocean, and the distinct smell of the air. It is hard to leave that behind, and the many wonderful weekends spent there, because being there became such a large part of our lives here in Taiwan. It will be hard not having it any more, although probably not right away. We will be busy when we first return home, but I'm sure it won't be too long before we are longing to drive our blue station wagon down the coast for a weekend of diving.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Work Ethic: A Lesson from the Taiwanese

I was raised in a family of hard workers. My parents, who began having children at a young age, both worked full-time and went to school while raising us, setting good work ethic examples for me and my sisters.

Yet somehow, I still didn't come out with the hardcore working habits I think I should have. Well, at least not during my school days anyway. When I was in high school, and later in college even, I was not the most serious student. I wouldn't say I was a bad student, just not particularly hard working. I did what I needed to to maintain a decent grade point average, but I could never find the motivation or will power to really put in the effort needed to be a stellar student. I often wonder where this laziness of mine came from, since I had two good examples to follow at home.

While I am certainly not absolving myself from any personal responsibility I have in my work ethic, I think that a large part of the reason why I developed a habit of slacking off in school was because I could. Unfortunately many, if not most, schools in America today do not require any kind of serious hard work from their students. I don't ever remember having any long nights of homework during my high schools days, and later, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized university wasn't nearly as demanding as I had thought it would be. Most people I knew weren't much different from me in that way, either. There weren't, it seems, many societal pressures to develop strong work ethics during those years. But of course I never thought about it then. It wasn't until I came to Taiwan that I was able to understand the importance of a society as a whole valuing hard work.

I knew that studying Chinese would require a lot of effort and time. I was planning on taking this endeavor very seriously and maximizing my time here learning. I also knew that I would have to change some of my previous study habits, and become a more serious student, if I wanted to achieve this goal. And although I can attribute some of the success of my accomplishment to my own determination to improve my work ethic, I must say that a large part of my inspiration to become a harder worker has come from being here, surrounded by people who are probably some of the most dedicated achievers in the world.

Whether young children, college students, or adults, the Taiwanese at any age have impressed me with their work habits and dedication. First graders practice character writing at home every night. They don't have a choice. With a language as complex as Chinese it's the only way to achieve a successful literacy among the population. By third grade they can read and write this complex language quite well, and are now conquering math problems that, as an American student, I wasn't introduced to until fourth or fifth grade.

My students who are in junior high and high school study for hours each night with dedication. They read complex passages from ancient Chinese writings, and their clear understanding of advanced math and science always impresses me. They go to evening school or hire a tutor for the subjects in which they need improvement. They have piano class or violin class, or sometimes both. And all of this is after a 7 to 9 hour school day. Did I mention they rarely complain?

Many of the adults I know are no different. One of my students is an anesthesiologist at a well know hospital here in Kaohsiung, where she works every day. She is also getting her PhD at a good university in Tainan, and studies English with me twice a week. She has two young children who are quite remarkable, and she always looks lovely. Another mother who I know has her PhD in English education from the US. While her family did live with her there for sometime during that period, she also spent a lot of it alone. She now works full-time teaching English at a university, and sends me one or two research papers a month for editing. I could go on citing many more examples, like my boss and my Chinese teachers, but this post is long enough already.

So, how could I, living here in Taiwan, in a society whose population is comprised mainly of people like this, even think about slacking off? I was inspired by all of the hard working people around me to be like them. I enjoyed listening to all of their accomplishments and I wanted to emulate their strategy of attaining them. I felt guilty sometimes even, when I wasn't feeling "motivated" to study. "How can I be so lazy, when my junior high school students do more work than me?" I quickly reprimanded myself in this fashion, and opened my books.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Empty House

One week ago my apartment was on the verge of being a bit too crowded. Now, it's empty and silent. I'm always sad to see people go. This time wasn't so bad, because I know I will see them in just a few weeks, but there is always a strange quietness after everyone is gone.

Our last week was really enjoyable. We drove up the east coast on Wednesday night, with every seat in our car filled. I must admit it was quite cramped. The drive from Kaohsiung to Hualien is about 5 hours, but with five people in the car it definitely seemed longer. Finally, around midnight we arrived at the convent where we were staying.

The next morning everyone was up early for a river hike through the Taroko Gorge National Park. I, unfortunately, had to sit this one out, but I've already done it twice, so it wasn't too big of a deal. That river hike is probably one of my favorite things to do in all of Taiwan. The seclusion of the pristine river, enclosed by tall green mountains on all sides really makes you feel as if you are the only person in the world. You can walk on for hours this way until you reach a bend in the river that is impassible. However, off to the right there are about 4 or 5 waterfalls that you can climb up, or just hang at the bottom cooling off in the ice cold pools.
Here are some photos of their hike.

The next day we did the Taroko Gorge National Park drive. You enter the park on the east coast, just north of Hualien city, and follow the road up, up, up into the mountains. Although we weren't going all the way up into the the 3000+ meter mountains, we did spend a few hours leisurely driving through the marble gorges, stopping off occasionally for some photo opportunities or a nice walk. We were saddened though that much of the road, which once offered a lovely scenic drive, was now directed into big tunnels cutting though the mountains. While these tunnels may be more convenient than the previously narrow, winding road that skirted the edge of the cliffs (see photo on left) they really take away a lot of the beautiful views and much of the excitement of driving through the Taroko Gorges.

After leaving the Gorges we drove along the east coast going south, making our way back to Kending. We literally spent the entire day in the car, although only being four of us now, it wasn't too bad. Driving the coast during the day is also an event in itself, because the views are absolutely amazing. I must say that I really don't mind it one bit.

Jonathan's Uncle Paul and his family joined us in Kending on Saturday, and we finished up the vacation with some great family time with them. It was nice to have everyone together relaxing and enjoying the quietness of our little house near the ocean. That will probably be one of the last weekends we will spend in that house, and I'm glad we made it a memorable one.